Photo/IllutrationCherry blossoms bloom at Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward on March 21. (Reina Kitamura)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Tokyoites received the signal to prepare their beers, picnic food and plastic sheets. The Japan Meteorological Agency announced March 21 that cherry blossoms have started blooming in the capital, five days earlier than usual.

An agency worker confirmed around 10 a.m. that five or six flowers had bloomed on the official “somei-yoshino” cherry tree at Yasukuni Shrine in downtown Tokyo that is the bellwether to determine when the cherry blossom season has started.

The tree was the earliest to bloom among somei-yoshino trees used around Japan to determine the start of local blooming. The beginning of blossoming in Tokyo was the same as last year.

To respond to demand among “hanami” cherry blossom viewing partygoers, a number of private companies are competing to most accurately forecast the start of blooming.

Although the JMA still officially declares the start of cherry blossom blooming, it stopped its forecasts in 2010, due in part to the increased accuracy of the private companies.

One of those companies, Tokyo-based Weather Map Co., has updated its forecasts twice a week in March, based on an analysis of the official somei-yoshino cherry trees used by the JMA at 53 locations around Japan.

As of March 20, Weather Map is predicting cherry blossoms will start blooming around the average time of year in the Kanto region in eastern Japan, but they will be somewhat late in western parts of the nation.

Northern Japan should also see cherry blossoms start blooming around the normal time of year, according to Weather Map.